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First reservoir fish passage in the Yakima Basin breaks ground

Members of the Yakama Nation look out over Cle Elum Lake, at its lowest drawdown point this year

by Nicky Pasi, American Rivers

More than a century ago, Yakima River Basin salmon runs ranged between 300,000 to one million fish.  Sockeye, coho, and spring, summer and fall chinook could be found in its waters, alongside steelhead, cutthroat, rainbow and bull trout.  The prominence of salmonids changed abruptly after 1905, when the Bureau of Reclamation began construction on the Yakima Project, five reservoirs that currently irrigate 464,000 acres of farmland. While this system has given rise to a $4.5 billion annual agricultural economy that produces 70% of the nation’s hops and millions of pounds of apples, pears, peaches, apricots, cherries and wine grapes, none of the dams included fish passage facilities.  Without access to spawning grounds and key habitat above the reservoirs, salmon populations quickly declined.  Within a few short generations, coho and sockeye salmon had been completely extirpated from the system.

On August 27, 2015, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, along with their partner agencies from the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan and representatives from state and federal legislators, ceremonially broke ground on the fish passage at Cle Elum Dam.  Tribal leaders spoke in appreciation of the guidance, wisdom and perseverance of past leaders who were no longer present to witness the outcome of their efforts. “They saw the need to build partnerships,” said Phil Rigdon, DNR Deputy Director at the Yakama Nation and Master of Ceremonies for the event, “They knew we needed each other to achieve our goals.”

Phil Rigdon, DNR Deputy Director at the Yakama Nation, addresses the assembly

The Yakama Nation has been working to return sockeye to Cle Elum Lake and the miles of pristine salmon habitat above it since 2009.  One thousand adult sockeye were transplanted from the Wenatchee and Okanogan river basins that summer, followed by increasingly large numbers every successive year.  They flourished and successfully spawned, with juveniles exiting the lake via a temporary flume installed at the dam’s spillway.  80,000 outmigrants were noted at Prosser dam in 2011, 701 of which returned to the Yakima Basin in 2013.  In 2014, 4000 fish were introduced and 4,500 returned, achieving replacement rate.  Biologist projections show that the Yakima Basin has the potential to be one of the largest salmon runs in the lower 48 states if recovery continues. (more…)


A good year to roll out Yakima Basin residential drought plan

by Joye Redfield-Wilder, WA Department of Ecology, Central Regional Communications Manager

Record low flows in Teanaway River, tributary to the Yakima River

Water conservation can make a difference in our communities. Seattle is a national model for water efficiency, despite its rainy climes, and uses the same amount of water yearly that it did in the 1970s.

We know outside irrigation is the largest “consumer” of water in the United States. In the Yakima Valley and across Washington investments to change irrigation practices from flooding a field to sprinklers and drip are a great success.

Sadly, those efforts haven’t been enough. Why? It hasn’t rained in Seattle and the rivers aren’t running high anywhere. Mother Nature didn’t deliver a 10-foot pile of snow to slowly melt like in a typical year. We’re experiencing NOW what could be the new norm 40 years from now.

Record low flows in Teanaway River, tributary to the Yakima River

Large urban areas and farmers have been paying attention and measuring both the environmental and economic costs of droughts. And planning ahead. Now it’s time for the rest of us to consider what we can do and why.

I live in the Yakima Valley, where my grandfather homesteaded on property near White Swan, grew potatoes, sold cream from his dairy cows and raised a large family. Water is the lifeblood of this fertile valley. Our families know acutely when the well runs dry and the pump goes out and the irrigation ditch is unfilled.

Water conservation is a crucial part of how we should address drought. It’s an important component of the Yakima River Basin integrated water management plan that looks to respond to current and future water short years. A fully implemented plan calls for everyone – not just farmers – to cut their water use to 70 percent of normal in a drought. This year, many farmers are getting only 46 percent of normal.

Efficient use of municipal and domestic water throughout the Yakima Basin can make a difference and is spelled out in the plan, using voluntary, incentive-based actions that focus on landscape irrigation and other consumptive uses.

Imagine if each of us decided to lop 30 percent off our summer water bills.

I know many pay a flat fee for their irrigation whether they use it or not. Others draw from private domestic wells. Still, imagine what using 30 percent less water would look like.

What better year than this for us to start examining how residential, commercial, public entities – cities, parks, schools – can improve how water is used and better yet NOT waste water in the first place.

Benton Conservation District Native Plant Garden

Would it mean watering every other day instead of watering for 20 minutes a station EVERYDAY? This year in Kennewick, residents can only water twice a week at 20 minutes per station.

The savings could protect a declining aquifer and your domestic well and mean better water supplies for next year. Predictions are for another dire year. Let’s plan ahead.

How about for school boards and park managers? Can we examine how frequently school yards and ball fields are watered and consult with conservation districts and Washington State University to land on optimum watering schedules that protect kids, but also not waste water? Could it be as simple as changing our watering schedule and sprinkler programs?

How many of us have walked across a soggy field or seen sprinklers watering the sidewalk? How many of us are ‘keeping up with the Jones’ in our yards? I know I’m guilty.

Consider making yours a heritage garden of low-water and native plants that will add beauty and help to respond to drought now and in the future.

This can be a positive experience and not a rude wake-up call. Y’all let’s get on board! Learn more at EPA WaterSense.

Other resources:
Some Washington Irrigation Facts from WSU
Ecology’s water conservation page
Read this article at the WA Department of Ecology’s Water Blog series


The Future We Want

by Michael Garrity of American Rivers and Lisa Pelly of Trout Unlimited

Cle Elum headwaters

The Yakima Basin Integrated Plan is a big deal. For farmers and river flows, certainly, ensuring water reliability as the climate warms and snowpack shrinks and as what’s left of it melts

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off sooner. For fish, definitely, bringing back what may be the largest sockeye run outside of Canada and Alaska. And for families, without a doubt, the wild places that we love so well will be enjoyed and protected by future

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Both of us have explored, hiked, camped, bird watched, rafted and fished the rivers and streams of the upper Yakima basin for most of our lives. We’ve also put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the negotiations that will, we hope, bring the YBIP to fruition. So today, as the prospects for an initial round of funding look good, what really gets us excited is imaging the upper Yakima Basin ten years from today, when the plan is well underway.

Upper Cle Elum Sockeye

In the beautiful Cooper and Waptus river watersheds, we have spent hours watching sockeye salmon spawning for the first time in nearly a century. With permanent fish passage constructed at the Cle Elum dam, we’ll be seeing a lot more of them making their way back to high valleys of the north central Cascades. We’ll also see happier, fatter trout in those rivers, and both of us are looking forward to hooking them on a fly. And its not just a fish story – salmon will serve as food for other fish and wildlife. Spawning salmon will help trees and forests grow stronger, taller and older as the fish bring fresh nutrients up river again.

Then there’s the crown jewel – the

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Teanaway Valley – the largest single public land acquisition in 45 years in Washington, that the YBIP will make possible. Wolves and wolverines have already returned, but the restoration of a robust salmon run and restored meadows and floodplains will create a wilder ecosystem there than has been seen in decades, if not a century. Instead of worrying about future development there, we’ll be able to camp, hike and fish to our hearts’ content.

The YBIP’s benefits are profound, and will stretch from the Cascades to the Columbia – we’ve only mentioned few here, focusing just on the upper Yakima. We both feel very blessed to be part of helping to shape a more sustainable Yakima Basin in the coming years, and are looking forward to many more adventures up and down its rivers and streams.

Garrity is the Washington State Conservation Director for American Rivers. Pelly is the Director of the Washington Water Project for Trout Unlimited.



Water woes create strange bedfellows


Naches River - Thomas O'Keefe

Steve Malloch of National Wildlife Federation and Michael Garrity of American Rivers recently wrote an article on the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan for the December 2012 issue of The Water Report, a monthly newsletter for water lawyers, engineers, regulatory agencies, tribes, municipalities, environmental organizations, and anyone interested in water law, water rights, and water quality in the western U.S.

Learn all the in’s and out’s of water policy  in the Yakima Basin and in the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan.

A snippet:

As with almost every major river basin in the American West, the Yakima River Basin (Basin) has a history of instituting ambitious water schemes in pursuit of economic development. As is also all too typical, this development came with many initially unconsidered costs: environmental degradation; long-ignored but resurgent tribal treaty rights; litigation; and, most recently, concern — even in this reliably conservative river basin — about an increasingly uncertain climate future.

In an effort to go beyond the decades of water confl icts spawned by this history, the Basin is now also home to another ambitious plan — the Yakima Basin Integrated Water
Resources Management Plan (Yakima Plan) — designed to secure a healthy future for the Basin’s fi sh, farms, forests, and families. The Yakima Plan is the result of an array of
interests in the Basin recognizing that digging entrenched positions still deeper is unlikely to result in a satisfactory resolution for anyone.

The Yakima River is located on the arid east side of Washington state, nestled between the Cascade Mountain crest and the Columbia River.


The Return of Sockeye

See the sockeye returning to spawn in the Cle Elum River!

When: October-November 2012
Where: Cle Elum River, WA

Sockeye are spawning as a result of Yakama Nation reintroduction to Lake Cle Elum. 10,000 adult sockeye were transported from Priest Rapids dam in July and are spawning above Lake Cle Elum. Yakama Nation is in its fourth year of reintroducing sockeye, monitoring populations, and developing strategies to maintain the Yakima Basin

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Local sockeye salmon populations were eradicated decades ago by dam development that blocked adult sockeye access to lakes. Yakama tribal elders describe the value of kálux (sockeye) to the people as a winter sustenance food to carry people until new spring food arrives. Historically, at least 200,000 sockeye would annually return to four lakes in the Yakima Basin. Returning

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sockeye to harvestable numbers requires ongoing studies and partnerships to obtain permanent fish passage.

Partners for permanent fish passage through a Yakima Basin Plan include: Bureau of Reclamation, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA, USF&WS, U.S. Forest Service, Yakima and Kittitas Counties, irrigation districts, and conservation groups.

Would you like to see sockeye spawning?

Click here to get directions to one of the best viewing spots on a map. Known as “Bridge to Cooper Lake,” by the locals, this spot is along the Cle

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Elum River. Formally listed on maps as NF-46.

* Please do not disturb the fish and stay out of the water.

Click here to see a flyer version of this blog.

Many thanks to Yakama Nation for providing content for this blog.

Fish. Families. Farms.
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